Wallabies coach Dave Rennie says James O’Connor is the sharpest he’s seen him and has convinced him he’s an option as a utility – and not just No. 10 – when he makes a likely return against Argentina.
Rennie was speaking in the wake of O’Connor missing out on the second Test against South Africa when the squad was named Thursday, but made it clear the veteran wasn’t far off a return.
Rennie said he thought a Wallabies 23-man squad could have both Quade Cooper and O’Connor within it, and revealed O’Connor had only recently shown a key attribute required to play beyond flyhalf.
Here are the big talking points from Thursday’s press conference
On how close O’Connor is to a return
“This is the best I’ve seen James,” Rennie said.
“He probably, even through Super Rugby, never did a lot of high speed metres. We want him to be a genuine threat at 10 so if space opens up he can attack.
“He’s worked extremely hard and he looks really sharp. We’re keen to get some footy into him. He’ll be a strong contender for next week.”
Rennie revealed the Wallabies had hoped to get their second string a trial game against Argentina’s on Friday but the match fell through.
Cooper played 60 minutes in a similar game against Western Force ahead of his impressive comeback against the Springboks on Sunday
“James, like Quade, has a lot of Test footy under his belt,” Rennie said. “He’s really impressive in our environment, a cool head, you see the influence he’s had on the Reds.
“And to have someone like James come back into the fold will be gold for us.”
He said O’Connor’s improvement in pace made him more valuable as a utility player.
“We would have definitely not have played him at fullback a couple of months ago and prior to that, because, from a high speed running perspective, he just hasn’t had any decent numbers for the last couple of years,” Rennie said.
“But he’s worked really hard over the last period and it’s the sharpest I’ve seen him, so he’s definitely back into a physical shape where we think we can use him as a utility, as opposed to just a No.10.”
Rennie was asked if the resurgence of old guard Cooper and JOC left young gun Noah Lolesio as the third choice flyhalf.
“We’ll reflect on that,” said Rennie. “To Noah’s credit he had a really good training week, so far this week.
“He’s learning a lot – and has the luxury of spending time with James and Quade.
“Noah’s played a lot of rugby this year with a young 9, 12 and 13 so he hasn’t had an enormous amount of experience around him. He’s an impressive young man who’s very dedicated and working hard on this game and he would have learned a lot from watching Quade play on the weekend. His game management is growing.”
On the return of Sean McMahon
McMahon joined the squad on Tuesday after two weeks in quarantine.
“JP, our trainer, put him through a pretty tough workout yesterday and he was really impressive,” Rennie said.
“He’s in fantastic condition, as Sean always is. JP’s report was he reckons he’d be the fittest in the team, that’s how good he is.
“For his two weeks in quarantine, JP turned his room into a gym so he’s pretty much been living in a gym for the last couple of weeks. And so he’s come ou really good and he’s a consideration for next week.”
Rennie was excited about what McMahon will bring to his side.
“He’s incredibly destructive defensively, very physical, but has an excellent skill set and is a dynamic athlete,” said Rennie. “He’s a high quality player that’s a real point of difference.”
Rennie bemoaned the fact that McMahon left the country early in his career. The 27-year-old played the last of his 26 Tests in November, 2017, having been inelgible since.
“It’s a real pity,” said Rennie. “Because he played a lot of Tests then left at such young age, Australian fans have missed out on watching him play a lot of Test footy
“He’s been working hard in the isolation ‘gym’ but he’s also done a lot of study around our structures, and he’s been able to come out and hit the ground running, which has been really impressive.”
On Michael Hooper breaking George Gregan’s captaincy record
Rennie gave a fabulous tribute to Hooper, who will captain the team for the 60th time in his 113th Test, breaking Gregan’s record, and said there was no reason why Hooper couldn’t go beyond Gregan’s caps record of 139.
“It’s a fantastic achievement, considering he’s 29 and still potentially got a lot of footy in him,” said Rennie.
“His form has been incredible. You see it time and time again, the amount of collisions, his ability to link, to show desperation and get back and make key tackles – he’s a fantastic example to the rest of the group.
“We’ve worked really hard on trying to grow our leadershipgroup and Hoops has been fantastic. He speaks really well and it’s important to him. He’s very proud of his country and very proud of the jersey.
“He’s been really demanding and high expectations and is having a massive influence on this group. I’m not sure I’ve coached anyone who trains full on like he does and plays full on. He’s been fantastic and it’s a hell of an acachievement.”
Rennie said breaking Gregan’s all-time Tests record “would be no surprise”.
“He’s so resilient. Against the All Blacks Brodie Retallick split him open and he gets 20 odd stitches, puts a hat on his head and jumps right back out there and gives you the same sort of intensity.
“He’s just not injured – always available and always giving you plenty. So based on resilience, so far, you think he’ll play a lot more Tests.”
Rennie was asked about fans who didn’t rate Hooper highly as a player.
“If people query his abilities as a player I’m gobsmacked about that,” said Rennie.
“You talk to players all around the world. And rugby people all around the world, he’s hugely respected.
“I think people’s opinions often reflect on the success of the team. And he’s been the captain and so because the team loses, and he’s the skipper, that responsibility is on him.
“And as you can see with our group, we’ve got a lot of young men and we’re going to get better. We’re working really hard. And it was good to get a result on the weekend for a number of reasons but I just think he’s a fantastic asset.
“He’s a Wallaby great – if he was playing in a different era, when you had a team full of very experienced players and seasoned players and you dominated the world, he’d go around as one of the best players in the world, and one of the great Wallabies. I still think he’ll get that mantle. Maybe not from everyone.”
On making the big call to bring in Quade Cooper last week
“I’ve been around a while and made lots of decisions over a lot of years,” said Rennie. “But it’s also a group thing.
“We get the luxury of seeing not just what they do on game day, it’s the way they’re training and the way they’re preparing.
“We were really confident that Quade was ready to go and I did say we considered playing him the week before we thought he needed some footy and get a decent hit out and tidy up a couple little bits about his game and I think that gave him confidence.
“We’re not scared of making courageous decisions. You look at a guy like Lenny Ikitau – when we brought him in last year he’d played about 12 minutes of Super Rugby, but we we saw something in him and brought him into our environment.
“He went back to the Brumbies has worked really hard and now he’s dominating the 13 jersey. It’s based on things we’re seeing that maybe Joe Public doesn’t see.”
On conceding three maul tries to the Springboks last week
“It’s certainly been a focus and there are a couple of things we got wrong – system errors. We think we’ve got a system that when we get it right, we will be able to nullify their maul.
“We did a good job on a number of occasions. But discipline is the key. We gave away 18 penalties and if they’re not kicking for goal they’re putting it in the corner and you give them enough cracks down here, they’re gonna hurt you. So we’ve got to limit their opportunities to maul.”
On Folau Fainga’a retaining his place despite sin bin offence and ill discipline
“We weren’t happy with the fact Folau got sin binned for tackling without his arms, and there were a couple of other occasions as well. That’s not like him. He’s a chop tackler but he’s generally got his arms up.
“We’ve had discussions around that. It can’t happen. Outside of that he played really well. So we’re happy with the mix.”
On Taniela Tupou starting with Allan Alaalatoa leaving camp
“What we like about Allan is his work ethic and his detail. Good scrummager, maybe not as destructive as Taniela but an excellent mauler,” said Rennie.’
“It’s been a good mix for us and Taniela’s dominance late in the game has paid dividends in Test matches.
“For the Reds he’s playing 80 minutes so we’re confident we can get a lot of mileage out of him on Saturday. It’s a good opportunity for him to remind us of what he can do from the start.”